Younger People and COVID Grief

A new study shows how millions will be affected.

Posted Jul 11, 2020

COVID-19 continues to kill globally, most particularly older adults. But even if their risk of death is lower, young people are profoundly damaged by COVID in another way: grief in the wake of the deaths of their closest relatives.

Tracking the likely impacts of escalating grief on mental health in the midst of a pandemic is very difficult. In their new study published this week, a team of sociologists led by Ashton Verdery at Pennsylvania State University began with previously collected data on the typical kinship profiles of U.S. families. Combined with data on the age patterns of COVID deaths, this allowed them to estimate who is most at risk of having their grandparent, parent, sibling, spouse, or child die. The team estimates that every COVID-19 death in the U.S. is experienced by more than eight of these closest relatives. 

They also estimated the age groups most affected by this bereavement-related grief. The two most affected groups are adults aged 60-69 years (who were more likely to lose a spouse, sibling, or parent) and young adults aged 20 to 29 (at particular risk of losing a grandparent). Grief associated with the loss of a close relative isn’t just emotionally devastating. It can lead to declines in many aspects of physical and mental health. And it can weaken the support that family members can then give to each other, both socially and financially.

Prior studies have shown that the loss of grandparents leads to many negative outcomes in childhood, such as depression or premature physical aging of the body. It also means their parents are grieving, reducing their capacity to then care for children. This has known impacts on child growth and other illnesses. The loss of wider family support also ripples through adolescence and into adulthood, like reducing family support available to pursue higher education.

In the U.S., COVID-19 is disproportionately killing Black people and other minority groups. When some communities suffer more deaths, the survivors also experience more grief — and with it worse mental and physical health outcomes. The impacts of grief on survivors reinforce health and economic inequalities within society.

References

Umberson, D., Olson, J. S., Crosnoe, R., Liu, H., Pudrovska, T., & Donnelly, R. (2017). Death of family members as an overlooked source of racial disadvantage in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(5), 915-920.

Verdery, AM., Smith-Greenaway, E., Margolis, R., & Daw, J (2020). Tracking the reach of COVID-19 kin loss with a bereavement multiplier applied to the United States Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2007476117.